Hello from the Other Side | 4 December, 2016 | Advent 2

Texts: Isiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

While I was living in Kansas a few years back, my friend invited me to join her and her family for their annual Halloween gathering.  For them, any holiday was a good excuse to gather, but I was surprised to find out that Halloween seemed to be just as much of a celebration as Thanksgiving or Christmas.  My friend’s aunt’s house was packed with cousins, nieces and nephews, grandparents, and aunts and uncles.  We ate more than we should (a good deal of that being candy).  We carved pumpkins with an intensity that I have never done before, which included printed templates, precision cutting, strategically placed toothpicks to hold together the spots where our cutting was less precise, and a ritualistic lighting of the finished products. 

After a full and rich day, the family gathered around the large dining room table.  We had exhausted all the planned activities, but the conversations were still going strong.  At some point, the conversation turned to which TV shows we thought were worth watching that season.  I don’t remember exactly which guilty pleasures were being discussed, and as a good Mennonite Voluntary Service worker, I watched very little TV at the time, so I was mostly listening. 

A couple minutes into the conversation, my friend’s grandpa, who had also mostly been a spectator in the raucous back and forth that had been happening, interjected from the end of the table, “There are too many gays on TV.”

In the span of approximately one-and-a-half seconds, a number of things happened.  There was a collective intake of breath from nearly everyone there, my friend silently grabbed my leg under the table, I’m sure I probably made a face that was somewhere between surprise and intrigue, and my friend’s mom quickly commandeered the conversation back to safer waters. 

After a few more seconds of making sure the fragile balance had been restored, my friend leaned in toward me and whispered, “Oh grandpa…”  We had a good chuckle, and “Oh grandpa” instantly became a long running joke that still occasionally shows up between us. 

Holiday gatherings, even apparently Halloween, can cause anxiety.  I know many of you have expressed some form of anxiety over family gatherings in the last couple weeks.  For some of you, maybe it’s as mild as worrying about “oh Grandpa” moments.  For others, you probably wish the conflicts in your family gatherings could be quelled as easily as that.  For some of you, maybe you find yourself on the receiving end of a dismissive “oh Grandpa” comment, feeling like you have not been heard or that you are not fully welcome in those family spaces.  For some of you, perhaps you have even had to make the painful decision not to be a part of such gatherings because those spaces would be harmful to you. 

I think these sorts of anxieties have long been the case for family dynamics, especially during the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  These are holy days, and perhaps we hope that the sacredness of these days should be able to bring us together.  In this moment, however, I think we would be remiss not to name the reality that the world feels especially divided, and for many these divisions feel less like superficial squabbles or differences of opinion and more like harmful violations of dignity and safety. 

The macro-anxieties of a nation distilled into the micro-anxieties of interpersonal and intimate relationships.  The political is personal, and vice versa. 

When we have a hard time imagining peaceful family gatherings, we probably have an even harder time imagining what a peaceful world will look like. 

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.”

A vision of peace worthy of painters, song-writers, banner-makers, and artists of all kinds.  A vision of peace worthy of dreamers and prophets.  A vision of peace worthy of these high holy days. 

A vision of peace…most of us probably don’t give more than a passing thought to because we’re not really sure what to do with it.  Predators and prey sleeping side by side?  Carnivores relinquishing their natural inclinations and and becoming herbivores?  Snakes holding back when meandering babies disrupt their homes? 

What are we to make of Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom with its absurd expectations?  Perhaps it would be helpful to reimagine this vision with hopes that fall a little closer to home but which we might find equally unlikely:

The donkey and the elephant shall legislate together for the common good.
The immigrant and refugee and the border patrol shall break bread as equals and their children shall play together with no boundaries.
KKK members shall work for racial justice alongside members of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Muslim shall be able to prostrate himself in prayer in public places without fear.
And in all these things, a child shall lead them.

What do we do with hope that feels so far from reality? 

To be fair to Isaiah, his vision of the peaceable kingdom is rooted (quite literally) in a vision of a leader, a messiah, a shoot growing from the stump of Jesse who it seems will make these things happen.  “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” 

It’s tempting in these divisive times to preach unity and reconciliation and peace without recognizing the hard work and sacrifice that makes these things even become possibilities.  It’s tempting to point to a pie-in-the-sky, lion-and-lamb kind of hope while simultaneously shrugging away the painful realities right in front of us.  It’s tempting to think that if we find just the right kind of leader that we will be made righteous again, even if it means using violence to get us there.  It’s tempting to say if we just get everyone in the same room to talk things out that everything will be better without recognizing the power some have to choose the room, set the table, and steer the conversation.

Just in case we get a little too comfortable with fluffy versions of lions and lambs, the lectionary also gives us this morning John the Baptist who shows up like the overzealous cousin at a family gathering who is not afraid to rile things up. 

“You brood of vipers!…Bear fruit worthy of repentance…Turn from your ways for another is coming with unquenchable fire!”

I typically am not a big fan of The Message Bible translation, but I like they way the writers capture John’s message in these verses:

“When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: ‘Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.’”

Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.  It is your life that must change, not your skin.  Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 

Lest we think that our hope is some fluffy reality far off in the clouds that has nothing to offer us other than pretty words nor nothing to ask of us other than sentimentality, John pulls us back down to earth, to right now, right here.  He reminds us that hope is not something that allows us to escape the world around us; hope is not stuck in some ever-distant and unreachable future. 

Instead, John reminds us that we are called to prepare the way; that hope is something that propels us forward, that changes us as we turn toward it.  Hope that is rooted in Christ pulls us beyond ourselves and our current reality into new life.  John’s message of hope to the people is rooted in repentance, in not just setting our clocks to a new way of orienting time but in setting our feet down a new path. 

Our advent hope must be more than nice words and pretty candles.  It must be about preparing the way so that inch by inch, moment by moment our hope becomes a reality, no matter how absurd it may seem in the face of the present moment.

In the book Theology of Hope, Jurgen Moltmann attempts to reimagine the Christian notion of hope in a way that remains grounded in the present while compelling Christians toward the promises of God made real in Christ.  It is a vision of hope that does not deny the reality of sin and death and decay but places that reality in the light of promises and possibilities made real by a God who calls life out of death.  Moltmann writes, “Only in the perspective of this God can there possibly be a love that is more than philia, love to the existent and the like [familial love] — namely, agape, love to the non-existent, love to the unlike, the unworthy, the worthless, to the lost, the transient and the dead…In [this] love, hope brings all things into the light of the promises of God.”

Moltmann wants readers to see that hope is central to theology not just an add on because hope makes love possible, the kind of love that calls us, nudges us, and sometimes kicks us in the rear toward something greater than we can think or even imagine.

Hope draws us to the heart of God.

This past week, I, along with a good number of you as well, attended a march and rally in downtown Columbus.  I had Isaiah and John the Baptist on my mind as I listened to the speakers outside the statehouse.  One of these speakers was from an organization called Yes We Can Columbus.  In his sharing he invited the crowd to respond to his comments by chanting “yes we can.”  I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember he started off without any sort of irony or qualification by saying something along the lines of, “We can put an end to racism in our community.”  And the crowd responded, “yes we can.”  He went on, “We can make sure that every person has a living wage.”  “Yes we can.” 

This went on for a good number of calls and responses, some of them perhaps more partisan than others, but so many of the hopes he named brought me back to Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable community.  I don’t want to insinuate that the hopes of this particular organization are the exact same hopes God has for creation, but I was struck by the power that these hopes, however unreal they might seem, had in that moment.  A moment where that crowd of nearly 1000 people was poised to take a next step toward something bigger.  No one believed that racism was going to end that night or any night in the near future, but the hope that it would someday end drew us forward. 

Hope that is bigger than what we can imagine makes possible love that brings new life. 

I’m still not sure I know quite what to do with Isaiah’s absurd vision, but I think I’ve come to realize that we need visions of hope that might seem a little absurd. 

Whether it is lions and lambs, elephants and donkeys, or just Aunt Marge and Grandpa Joe, we need to cling to hope that love and peace are possible in even the most unlikely places.  And in that clinging, we just might find ourselves figuring out how to move toward that new life. 

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

My wish for us, my friends, is…
– That our advent would be about more than pretty candles and sentimentality
– That we would have hope big enough and absurd enough to draw us toward the kind of love that brings new life
– And finally that moment by moment, we would do the work that needs to be done to prepare the way for hope, to make straight the path for peace, and to bear fruit worthy of love